Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research
Royal Netherlands
Institute for Sea Research

Hydrothermal vent fields

Protecting deep seabed hydrothermal vent fields through area-based management tools

The deep seabed is the common heritage of humankind, and is at risk by the imminent start of mining. Trans-disciplinary research within environmental science and international law will assess the role of area-based management tools (ABMTs) in protecting hydrothermal vent fields against mining impacts. We investigate ecological connectivity at vent field scale to determine the necessary dimensions of ABMTs, and how these outcomes are best integrated in the regulatory framework of the International Seabed Authority (ISA). The Netherlands government and others may use the research outcomes to ensure ISA regulation meets the highest possible environmental and biodiversity standards.

 

The strengthened and trans-disciplinary research and expertise generated by this project will be of value to the Netherlands government and other stakeholders on deep seabed mining

    Erik Molenaar, Sabine Gollner

Project description

The imminent start of mining poses risks to hydrothermal vents, including habitat removal, vent-fluid change, toxic mining plumes, and associated risks of biodiversity loss. Several intergovernmental organizations suggest that active vents classify as areas in need of conservation. The international community has adopted commitments and targets on using ABMTs for conservation (e.g. UN Sustainable Development Goals) and legal obligations will be included in the ‘BBNJ Agreement’ under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that is currently under negotiation.

The dimensions of ABMTs are of key importance for their ability to protect vents against external mining impacts. An active vent field is a spatially associated cluster of active and inactive chimneys/mounds. Mining impacts may damage active and inactive vents, nonhydrothermal sediments and the benthic and pelagic surroundings within and beyond a vent field. Most environmental research has focused on active chimneys. Unknown, however, is the ecological connectivity between active chimneys and their benthic and pelagic surroundings. Focused research on this connectivity is required to determine the necessary three-dimensional size of ABMTs.

Optimizing ABMTs in terms of operational effectiveness must be supplemented by optimizing regulatory effectiveness through integrating ABMTs in the ISA’s regulatory framework. ISA regulations refer to various types of ABMTs (e.g. Impact reference zones and Preservation reference zones). It is not clear, however, if these can be used and are suitable for the envisaged 3-dimensional ABMTs to protect vents and, if not, what the opportunities and constraints of alternative options are. This requires in-depth international law research on ISA’s regulations, founding instruments and other relevant international instruments (e.g. the BBNJ Agreement) and best practices thereunder.

Main goals

  1. Contribute novel data on the ecological role of active chimneys for the vent field and beyond and vice versa, through the use of samples collected on vent fields at the Mid Atlantic Ridge.
  2. Assess whether the ISA’s existing ABMTs can be used and are suitable for ABMTs determined as optimal (under goal 1 above) and, if not, what the opportunities and constraints of alternative options are.
  3. Collaborate with representatives from governments, the ISA, the industry and NGOs, so that stakeholders may use our results to progress plans for mining in an environmentally sustainable manner.
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The imminent start of mining poses risks to hydrothermal vents, including habitat removal, vent-fluid change, toxic mining plumes, and associated risks of biodiversity loss. Photo NIOZ

Activities and events

  • Upcoming events

    Date: 13-14 December 2021

    Workshop “Protecting deep seabed ecosystems under the future Agreement on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of BBNJ and by the ISA – Perspectives of Government, Civil Society, Stakeholders, and Law and Science”

    Photo: An example of the fauna found in the Kolbeinsey vent field.

    The workshop aims to bring together a wide variety of stakeholders and researchers to discuss the role of ABMTs under various international processes and organizations. The event is organized by the Netherlands Institute for the Law of the Sea (NILOS), the Utrecht Centre for Water, Oceans and Sustainability Law (UCWOSL) of Utrecht University, and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in collaboration with the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ)

  • Past activities

    Date: 1-16 July 2021

    Pelagia cruise to hydrothermal vents near Iceland

    Photo: The RV Pelagia in Reykjavik.

    During the multidisciplinary RV Pelagia expedition to hydrothermal vents near Iceland, Sabine Gollner and Lise Klunder studied the fauna at the Kolbeinsey and Grimsey vent fields, including ecological connectivity at vent field scale. To read more about the cruise, visit the blog here.

Connected themes

  • Sunstainable functioning of Coastal and Shelf Seas
  • Ocean of Discovery
  • Our Future Ocean 
NIOZ project page